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Being Sleep Deprived Is Not a Badge of Honor

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

If there’s one thing all parents commiserate about, it’s sleep. Or more accurately, lack of sleep.

This is partly because nobody is more sleep deprived than parents and partly because it’s all we have left. But is our glorification of our exhaustion hurting or helping us? According to Arianna Huffington, it’s hurting us. Huffington has recently launched a “Sleep Revolution,” born in part from her own journey of self-awareness about how a lack of rest has deeply impacted her life.

In a live chat with Susan Cain, Huffington discussed the many ways lack of sleep costs us.

“We sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but ironically, our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we put in at work, adds up to more than eleven days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280. This results in a total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the US economy of more than $63 billion, in the form of absenteeism and presenteeism (when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused). As a culture, we need to redefine what we value, and change workplace culture so that working ’til all hours and walking around exhausted becomes stigmatized instead of lauded!”

While I appreciate Huffington’s goals in moving towards a society that is less focused on busyness for the sake of busyness, as a working mom of four kids, I can’t help but wonder how parents can realistically get more sleep. Because the truth is, babies and kids get up in the night — a lot.

Huffington, who answered a few of my questions about the sleep revolution over email, was once a mother of young children like many of us, so she knows the struggle well. At the time, she chose to co-sleep to get more rest. (But she advises that parents always take proper precautions when doing so.)

Aside from co-sleeping, Huffington’s key to remaining rested in the months following a baby’s birth is her self-proclaimed “tribe of support.” Huffington was fortunate enough to have not just an involved husband, but her mother who lived with them. “Yaya” would regularly take care of the baby so that she could sleep, something she says was a “real blessing.”

Of course, my first reaction when I read that was, “C’mon, Huffington! That’s not realistic for most people!” But that is precisely the problem. When we disdainfully look down on mothers who have “help” in order to get more sleep, we contribute to the myth that mothers can — and should — shoulder all of the parenting responsibilities, no matter what the cost.

Huffington also acknowledges that for many people in the world, sleep deprivation isn’t exactly a choice.

“If you’re working two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet, ‘get more sleep’ is probably not going to be near the top of your priorities list,” she admits. “As in the case of health care, access to sleep is not evenly — or fairly — distributed. Sleep is another casualty of inequality. … But the paradox here is that the more challenging our circumstances, the more imperative it is to take whatever steps we can to tap into our resilience to help us withstand and overcome the challenges we face. There’s a reason we’re told on airplanes to secure your own mask first.”

Huffington is passionate about urging mothers to understand that more sleep = better parenting. “The better we are at taking care of ourselves,” she explains, “the more effective we’ll be in taking care of others, including our families, our coworkers, our communities, and our fellow citizens.” Although Huffington acknowledges how hard it is for mothers — especially single mothers— to get enough sleep, she believes that a better night’s rest first begins with us changing the way we think about it. Most of us tend to think that the less we sleep, the more we can get done. But in many ways, skimping on sleep actually makes us less productive in the long run. If you make sleep a priority, you’re more likely to do more (and do it better).

So how can parents make sure they get more sleep? Huffington offered up some of her best tips:

Work it out so one partner at a time gets up with the baby. “Work out a rotation so that when one partner is up, the other is able to try and sleep — in another room, if possible. What’s most important is having a conversation about expectations, which can minimize resentments and disagreements at 3 AM.”

Give your resting space as much respect as your technology. “Though we don’t give much thought to how we put ourselves to bed, we have little resting places and refueling shrines all over our houses, like little doll beds, where our technology can recharge, even if we can’t.”

Understand that technology changes our mental state. “Even when we’re not actually connecting digitally, we’re in a constant state of heightened anticipation. And always being in this state doesn’t exactly put us in the right frame of mind to wind down when it’s time to sleep.”

Create a healthy transition to sleep that begins before you even step into your bedroom.

Use pajamas dedicated to sleep. “I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains).”

Unfortunately, for mothers, prolonged sleep deprivation really can be dangerous and a contributor to serious conditions, such as postpartum depression. But for the average parent who doesn’t really have a choice, hopefully we can be a little more practical about how we approach sleep. Maybe we could take a look back at our ancestors, who may never have slept in full 8-hour stretches and who obviously must have gotten up a lot at night with hungry babies, too. Maybe we could focus more on workplace policies that allow more flexibility when our children are newborns or even make paid leave a real thing so we aren’t trying to function at anything other than baby snuggling.

And most importantly, perhaps we could stop glorifying sleep deprivation, because we’re all guilty of that.

If all else fails, Huffington says that the solution to sleep deprivation lies in the simple art of taking naps. “While chronic poor sleep can have long-lasting effects on our health, naps can help mitigate some of those effects, at least in the short term,” Huffington points out. “Short of time travel, a next-day nap may be the closest we can get to a second chance at a good night’s sleep.”

In the end, Huffington hopes to make a sleep revolution, one shut-eye at a time. “Small steps toward more and better sleep are attainable and worth striving for,” she says. “Giving sleep the respect it deserves doesn’t require dramatic changes. Start by finding a way that works for you to ease your transition into sleep each night, and also taking moments to recharge throughout the day.”

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